In these days of The Walking Dead and iZombie, maybe the idea of a "realistic" zombie drama shouldn't seem to be so surprising. Still, the debut feature by the British-born motion graphics artist Henry Hobson is a striking, strange proposition; a film that thinks so much outside the box you're never sure if it actually fits anywhere, an utterly tear-free zombie equivalent of the terminal-disease melodramas that we can trace back to something as far back as Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias or as recently as John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.
But this is also a film where Arnold Schwarzenegger essays a rare dramatic role, and an essentially supporting one, that doesn't require him to flex his muscles or dispose of villains with sound-bite sentences (and, by the way, acquits himself more than honorably). And this is definitely not a horror movie, since it's not at all about survival; what it is is a pared-down, bleached-out tone poem about mortality, set in a future, not entirely post-apocalyptic America in the throes of the so-called "necro-ambulist" virus, in effect a contagious disease (echoing contemporary global scares like Ebola or SARS) that turns those affected into living dead.
The titular Maggie (played with quiet resourcefulness by an Abigail Breslin channeling the young Claire Danes) is a rural high-schooler who has caught it and, after running away to protect her family from her, is brought back home by her father Wade (Mr. Schwarzenegger). What follows is Maggie's slow goodbyes to life, every step of it magnified by the constant presence of the horror awaiting her in the close-knit small town she lived in and by the love of those around her; like some sort of horrible lottery she was chosen for without possibility of appeal, Maggie is the girl forced to grow up in an accelerated period of time. Key to the film's tonal control is a scene in a beach party where Maggie's best friend takes her for a last moment of joy and teenage fun with her friends, positing the horror as something that is just there, forcing a "new normal" upon everybody.
Maggie abounds in lyrical ruralist imagery clearly influenced by both Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols, in a curious combination of small-scale, intimate drama and end-of-the-world anxiety that has a lot in common with both Mr. Nichols' Take Shelter and the first act of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. That is part of what makes it a more distinctive film than most, even if there's a general feel that John Scott 3's script is a bit too thin for feature length; there's a sense of a passion project for all involved (including Mr. Schwarzenegger, who is also credited as producer), and of a calling card that reveals Mr. Hobson to be perfectly at ease in both narrative and atmospheric control. No masterpiece, but a smart, intriguing film.
USA, Switzerland, 2014
Cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
Director Henry Hobson; screenwriter John Scott 3; cinematographer Lukas Ettlin (widescreen); composer David Wingo; designer Gabor Norman; costumes Claire Breaux; editor Jane Rizzo; producers Colin Bates, Joey Tufaro, Matthew Baer, Bill Johnson, Ara Keshishian, Trevor Kaufman, Mr. Schwarzenegger and Pierre-Ange le Pogam; production companies Grindstone Entertainment Group, Gold Star Films, Lotus Entertainment, Matt Baer Films and Sly Predator Productions in association with Silver Reel
Screened June 13th 2015, Lisbon